“Ex Machina” Review

There’s a strange gentleness and a warmth to something as dark and unsettling as Ex Machina. A man sits behind glass and watches as a female robot cautiously enters into the room. She sits down and talks to the man with a curiously inquisitive nature. It’s one of many moments in this little sci-fi picture that feels like a breath of fresh air in its ambiance and script that challenges the viewer more than it does the special effects budget.

The plucky young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by his search engine company to be one of the few to visit its CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s flown out to Nathan’s secluded mansion deep within the jungle and located underground. Once he passes through the security, Nathan’s home is quite cozy and uniquely designed with just enough room for his science lab. It’s a stylish interior, but it becomes apparent to Caleb after spending a few days with Nathan that the isolation has taken its toll. Nathan places words in Caleb’s mouth as if it were a conversation with a biographical ghostwriter.

But Caleb wasn’t just invited out to the secret hideaway for booze and dancing (as Nathan prefers). Believing that he is on the cusp of perfecting the world’s first artificially intelligent robot, Nathan sets up interview sessions with Caleb and the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). With her flesh face and transparent circuitry, she cautiously enters a room and sits down to talk with Caleb behind glass. Tasked with finding flaws in the creation, Caleb treads lightly through his conversations with Ava. He asks questions that challenge her own originality which in turn makes her question Caleb. But there’s something more sinister to Ava’s conception and her developing thoughts that she only shares with Caleb. And with Nathan being both aloof and a drunk, there’s nowhere safe in this trap of an experiment.

Through its simple premise with a likely conclusion, Ex Machina leaves itself plenty of time to ask the big questions and challenge perceptions. Caleb’s sessions with Ava are intelligent and thought-provoking the way both attempt to probe each other. There are no stupid questions or answers such as “can you love?” and “what is love?” The subject of romance is approached maturely as when Caleb asks where Ava would like to go on a date if she were let loose in society. She remarks that she’d like to visit a traffic intersection to observe the behaviors of passing patrons. Sitting for hours watching people go about their lives is of endless fascination to Ava. Whereas others just see a common presence of a city, Ava spots a playground of psychology.

This is what makes Ex Machina such a brilliant piece of science fiction. It finds the perfect moments of beauty, intelligence and fear in a story of isolated frustration among technological breakthrough. Writer/director Alex Garland is able to both craft and express these ideas with real tone and atmosphere that rewards the viewer who wants more. I’ve seen movies where computer-generated robots smash through glass or crush cars like tin cans. Rarely do I ever see a film so decadent in its special effects and uses them to tell a human story with real character. Only after its slow-burn of unease does the climactic showdown actually have weight and substance. It feels good to finally be writing about a science fiction film like this that doesn’t feel the need to dip its toes too deep into the realm action.

Ex Machina is that infatuating bit of hard science fiction which begs for repeat viewings. It’s smart without being dry and thrilling without being simple. Everything about this film – from design to script – is intelligently crafted with an amazing atmosphere of innocence and tension. This is an exceptional purchase without question. It’s one that I’ll certainly be coming back to again and again, stacked close to my copy of Blade Runner and Dark City.

“Extraterrestrial” (2014) Review

Movie aliens tend to greet Earthlings with either open arms or open mouths. If they’re not trying to meet, they want to eat. Or, in the case of District 9 or E.T., gas up and go home. The purpose of the uninspired greys from indie horror Extraterrestrial appear rather confusing. It’s pretty clear from the horror leanings that these beings do indeed want to slaughter humans, but for what gain? Whereas other movie aliens seem to have a goal in mind during their visit, these creatures appear more confused about what they want to do with their human subjects. They spent all this time trying to get to Earth and must have just forgot about what they came here to do in the first place.

But this isn’t so much a sci-fi picture as it is your a-typical teens in the woods picture. It’s your standard template with the exception of an alien race written in as the creature of the feature. College kids venture to a cabin in the middle of crazy country so they can party and get stoned. Should we expect anything less? None of them are all that unique or interesting, fulfilling basic horror movie archetypes. One of them has a breakup, one of them is a party animal, one of them is crazy about discoveries and there’s the obligatory handheld camera floating about to wedge in that style as well. Michael Ironside pops up as the local weed farmer of the area, but he’s a wasted bore even as a conspiracy theory hermit.

Then our group of youngsters encounter a downed UFO they find in the woods. Of all the spaceships I’ve seen in movies over the years, Extraterrestrial has one of the least inspired designs. It’s the old-fashioned spinning saucer with too many lights and too little detail. The freaked out teens soon return to the cabin and the aliens begin to terrorize them. Keeping with the style of the UFO, the aliens are your stereotypical greys. They’re big, lanky, grey and have big eyes. The only thing about these aliens that doesn’t feel conventional is their motive in that they don’t actually have one.

The aliens are kept mostly aloof at first with a developing mystery about their presence. A cop investigates the region with claims of abducted individuals and mutilated cows. What exactly do these aliens want? At first, it seems they just want to abduct humans for some sort of experiment. But their experiment appears more like a confusing process than a calculated means of study. One unlucky victim finds himself abducted into the alien ship with half his arm as he handcuffed himself to a tree to be spared. Onboard, the victim is tortured and probed by a robot until he dies via a probe into his butt. Either there’s some intricate method to these alien plans that human just cannot fathom or these aliens are just screwing with us for the heck of it. I’m inclined to believe the latter since the aliens also perform some confusing kills in the way they grab faces and use ESP to force their victims into suicide.

Right up to the very last scene, which has one of the most nonsensical left-field endings of any horror picture, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion and anger. There is no point, plot or pleasing element to Extraterrestrial. It just wants to stage standard horror with aliens and doesn’t want to write anything interesting around that premise. Director Colin Minihan and writers The Vicious Brothers don’t want to give you anything to think about in an alien horror picture. They believe all the viewer needs to be satisfied with such an experience is a death by anal probe.

Extraterrestrial offers nothing more than typical aliens and mild terror, refusing to let either mix properly. Whatever intricate tale The Vicious Brothers were trying to weave with this film is drowned by too many tropes and nonsense kills that mean nothing. If Cabin in the Woods finally put down the college student slasher genre, Extraterrestrial just gives up and commits suicide the way it just throws random violence and spectacle at the screen. Maybe some aliens can abduct this film and use their superior minds to decipher just what director Colin Minihan was thinking when he made this mess.

“Space Station 76” Review

The awkward indie comedy scene need not be relegated to the hipster landscape. ‘Space Station 76’ defies that sub-genre by injecting a similar writing tone into the setting of an isolated space satellite, ala ‘Space: 1999’. Rather than filling this retro vision of the future with stock characters constantly flipping switches and speaking technobabble, this is a collective of bitter and tired people bred from the sterile and lonely environment they occupy. It’s that harsh light of insecure reality shining down an otherwise whimsical location which gives the film its very weird and watchable charm.

Introduced into the hive of silent turmoil is the new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler), a genuinely sweet personality that does her best to make friends on the station. She tries to maintain the station’s safety, but the drunken Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) dismisses her words as he struggles to deal with his closet homosexuality. She does seek some kinship with residents Ken and his daughter Sunshine, but is viciously despised by Ken’s drugged up wife Misty. While the trio of good-natured individuals struggle to keep a stiff upper lift, the adulterers of the station battle their own personal demons through drinks, smokes and robot-operated psychiatry. They hate their jobs, their relationships and the lives they find themselves saddled with out in space.

This is the type of film that sort of catches you off guard luring you in for what may seem like a campy satire of  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that ends up being a rather peculiar dramedy. You can feel seething hatred and jealousy emitting from this group within the hospital-style interiors.  Even within the characters that seem more pure like Ted, there is an almost haunting presence of temptation. He looks out into space and fantasizes about a naked woman within a star. Sunshine discovers a pornographic magazine in her parent’s dresser and begins to have doubts about her body. These scenes may make the film seem like a depressing journey, but I found it more intriguing for the fact that in a wondrous future people still have the same social problems. A space station free of alien monsters and looming intergalactic threats breeds its own difficulties. It doesn’t help that the robot they all rely on for psychiatric help is only programmed to respond to certain key words and doesn’t actually help them.

With so much vitriol, it doesn’t seem like the best idea for a comedy. In fact, it’s almost hatable for the first act. There are some redeeming factors that prevents it from being completely soulless as with Sunshine’s anti-gravity game in which her dad cheers her on as she float around the room. And the inevitable climax which could’ve easily taken a disastrous turn winds up being a more touching ending that brings the characters back to what’s really important. This is a very strange type of genre blending that I can’t exactly say I loved, but didn’t really despise all that much either. I got a few laughs even though it was mostly that awkward kind of amusement that comes from dark improv. I had some fun following these flawed characters even though most of their issues seem to pile up too quickly. The real deal breaker for me were the special effects and set design of a space station that embodies the 1970’s era. Popped collars, brown wallpaper and Beta tapes litter the halls of a very familiar looking design for a livable space environment. It’s those moments that give the film its true edge of speculating a future with more advancements in everything except people.

“Edge of Tomorrow” Review

You may have missed this film at the theater because it had such a generic title: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. Now on home video its been given the title ‘Live Die Repeat’ with the subtitle ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ in the corner of the cover. Well, that’s a slightly better title and at least superior to its novel source entitled ‘All You Need Is Kill’. Well you can call this film anything you like, but I call it one of the best films sci-fi films I’ve seen all year.

Tom Cruise plays a Major who is demoted down to a grunt for a D-day style offensive against an invading alien force known as Mimics. Cruise is killed minutes within the battle, but not before getting some nasty alien blood into his system. The blood of these aliens has time-travel abilities which ends up sending back to relive the same battle again. He’s sent into combat again, dies again and the whole thing starts all over again, hence the title. Think of it as a science-fiction version of ‘Groundhog Day’. The only one who believes what Cruise is going through is Emily Blunt’s character, a veteran soldier who has had the same experience. She’s aware that the only way to stop the cycle is to either get a blood transfusion or kill the hive mind of the aliens. And since Cruise seems doomed to die in this alien war, the latter is a much more tantalizing goal.

Just like ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Live Die Repeat’ makes great use of the repeating day concept to be both clever and amusing. Not-so-typical for Tom Cruise’s usual characters, he doesn’t play an action hero from the start. In fact he makes several mistakes that result in multiple deaths until he finally trains enough to become a more efficient soldier. When he does, there’s an undeniable charm to the way he strolls through key events as a psychic who seems to know everything about everyone from the accumulated knowledge. It’s also just as hilarious to watch him fail each time. One of the funniest montages involves his training scenes with Emily Blunt where any serious injuries incurred by Cruise’s character results in her murdering him to reset the day once more. There are several great moments where Cruise tries to walk off his injuries claiming its not that bad only to be shot by Blunt and start all over.

As much as it is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, it also succeeds at being a sci-fi/action blockbuster with brains. The mystery behind the invading alien creatures is just as intriguing as their designs. The closest thing I can relate them to are like rabid starfishes able to change their shape and attack multiple targets. Once Cruise and Blunt finally form a solution, they carry out their plan of attack with incredible efficiency and tact in sensational action sequences.

Director Doug Liman completely delivers on a film that’s goes above and beyond the expectations. The action sequences are well-shot with some rather some impressive computer graphics given the abundance. You’d think that a film repeating key scenes over and over would grow dull, but the it’s edited tightly enough to keep the energy and drive of the picture going. I had a lot of fun watching this film trying to decipher the Mimics and watching Cruise learn from his deadly mistakes. This is a film I’m going to be going watching multiple times in the future just to see if I can see something new each time. Needless to say, it’s a definite buy.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

The ‘X-Men’ are easily one of the most intriguing and interesting superhero teams in comic book history. It’s been a long time since those awesome stories have actually resonated on the big screen. The franchise over the last four years has gone downhill into routine action shlock. Thankfully, Brian Singer has returned to deliver one of the best ‘X-Men’ movies ever made based on one of the most memorable stories. You know how some comic book fans will often talk about their favorite sagas and how those would make the best films, but would probably be muddled in production? This is the first comic book film to finally get the formula right and it’s a more than welcome presence for the genre.

The future for the ‘X-Men’ is a dark and depressing time as mutants are hunted down and murdered by the robotic Sentinels. Able to adapt to any superpower and outnumber their opposition in numbers, the few remaining mutants struggle to hide and survive. Notable regulars Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Paige) are a few of the remaining mutants from the old guard. Their last hope is to travel back in time and undo the events that led to this dismal state.

Using Kitty Pride’s unique time-traveling ability, Wolverine is sent back to 1973 to undo the crucial moment in history that set off a horrific chain reaction. The Sentinels were developed by Trask (Peter Dinklage), but did not receive the proper funding and attention until Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders the President of the United States. To prevent this assassination, Wolverine rounds up the old gang that includes Xavier, Beast, Magneto and Quicksilver for a brief prison break of Magneto. At the same time while Wolverine is desperately trying to change history, his friends in the future are tragically trying to keep him in the past before the Sentinels end them all.

Explaining to everyone in the past what will happen in the future is easy for Wolverine. The tough part is attempting to change the minds of those who act on their fears to prevent catastrophe. Xavier has shut himself off from his telepathic abilities, Beast is ashamed of his abilities, Mystique is entirely driven by revenge and Magneto seems to think he can handle all of this with no regard for others. Therein lies the challenge not just for Wolverine, but for all the characters to grow as better or worse individuals who will shape the world with their actions. So, essentially, it’s Back to the Future with much more epic consequences.

This is the first ‘X-Men’ film Bryan Singer has directed in at least a decade. His last film was ‘X-2: X-Men United’, the only ‘X-Men’ film I actually enjoyed. Now he’s blown the rest of the franchise away with this pitch-perfect direction of the classic comic arc. What makes his effort so different and so effective is how much Singer holds back. He never inserts more mutants or action sequences than what is needed to make the film work.

Early in the film, Mystique saves a group of mutant soldiers from being experimented on by Trask Industries. I was almost positive these mutants were going to be thrown into a large scale sequence later on. To my surprise, they serve their purpose of just establishing the climate of mutants for this era. The final confrontation of the film is the showdown we were prompted for, but it’s a rather genius scene for how Magneto plans to be the victor. He traps the area of the White House by lifting a sports stadium to create a perimeter. It’s a smart use of his mutant powers and still manages to feel epic in scale. It’s a far cry from when Magneto moved the Golden Gate bridge for the silliest of reasons.

Quicksilver, despite his short appearance, manages to steal the show with his comical personality and speedy displays. The scene where he disables a room full of security guards from shooting down our heroes is both stunning, clever and a whole lot of fun. He’s much needed smile in a story that’s mostly gloom and doom. Also, if you’re familiar with Quicksilver’s family ties, there’s a brilliant little easter egg in the dialogue.

While there are a handful of fight scenes, hardly any of them felt pointless or drawn out. It helps that there was a main goal for which all these characters were fighting towards so that everything is kept in focus. Mystique, for how many fights she gets into, isn’t just being an atypical villain. Her mission is clear and she wastes no time saving her kind and wiping out the threats. It’s that added depth to the characters and their plight that makes the fights that much more entertaining.

What I love so much about Singer’s script is that he manages to maintain the overall story of the original content, but still make it balanced and work within a movie. By focussing the movie entirely on Wolverine, Xavier, Beast, Magneto, Mystique and Trask, we’re given plenty of opportunity to explore these characters and their ambitions. Trask, in particular, managed to be one of the most unique villains I’ve seen in a comic book movie for how three-dimensionally defined he ended up being. The man doesn’t really want to kill all mutants for revenge, but has a genuine desire for safety and the study of mutants. He’s a villain who truly doesn’t see himself as one at all.

With a story that jumps between two timelines, it seems like it would be easy to get lost. But the script manages to keep things leveled and focussed while at the same time not wasting a moment. That’s a rather impressive for a film with so many characters, even if only a handful get the most screentime. But even the primary characters never felt overused. With Wolverine being the one sent back in time to save the future, you’d think he took center stage. To my delighted surprise, he really only serves his purpose for setting the plans in motion and then literally leaves the stage.

While the plot is perfectly conceived for a time travel film, it’s the characters that really give the movie such value. We’re given a small group of characters that we can follow and understand rather than just a smattering of simple heroes as previous ‘X-Men’ films tended to be. Sure, we are still introduced to a large collective of mutants, but most of them only fulfill their purpose for the establishing environment, tone and urgency. As a result, even the smaller roles don’t feel wasted.

This is the ‘X-Men’ film every fan has been waiting to see and it delivers on all fronts. It’s that one dream production that every comic book reader talks about, but figured they’d never see. Thanks to Brian Singer’s skillful and tight direction, ‘Days of Future Past’ ends up being not only the best ‘X-Men’ film, but easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. Expect this film to be talked about years later as the perfect comic book film adaptation. One can only hope this talented vision rubs off on the future tsunami of superhero films.

“Godzilla” (2014) Review

What can you expect from a Godzilla movie? The legacy of Japan’s top giant monster has had several interpretations. The mean, green machine has been the horrific creation of science gone wrong, an opponent in giant monster wrestling matches and even a hero of the people. So which route do you take? Well, this 2014 remake managed to find a way to make Godzilla the hero of the day without turning the film into a campy kaiju wrestling match. So, just to get the initial question out of the way, this is a much better film than Roland Emmerich’s 1996 disaster of a Godzilla flick. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it helps to know our country managed to do Godzilla right.

I really dug how the first act of this film keeps Godzilla aloof. We don’t even mention the iconic monster for that section outside of some quick shots from a distance in the opening credits. All we’re really told is that something is moving underground and causing havoc in the form of massive earthquakes. More importantly, we see the real human consequence of these attacks. A nuclear plant is attacked where scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife to a dangerous radiation leak. Many years later, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) has joined the military service and made a family for himself. Meanwhile, Joe stays in Japan as a conspiracy theory nut stalking the quarantined disaster area of the plant. He ropes his son into his investigation where the two uncover the Japanese government has been secretly keeping a giant monster contained. And it just woke up.

The monster is dubbed MUTO and consumes energy like candy in addition to setting off EMP waves. The unstoppable creature plows through anything and can make jets fall from the sky with his abilities. The MUTO travels from Japan all the way to America to find his mate concealed by the US government. Once they meet, they plan on getting busy and having a kids with an ill-equipped military standing in their way. So where is Godzilla in all this? He’s our triumphant savior who steps in to beat the snot out of these two uglies honing in on his turf (the planet Earth). He has one brief skirmish with one of the MUTOs before the grand two-against-one brawl. And while it seemed like there was a lot of useless build up to that point, the final fight ends up being one of the best Godzilla matches of all-time.

Gareth Edwards takes a much different approach to Godzilla than any other director. Similar to what he did with his previous film Monsters, Edwards teases us with the giant monsters. You don’t see Godzilla almost an hour into the film and when you do see him it’s very brief. Godzilla shows up in Hawaii to fight one of the MUTOs, but you only see some quick news segments. Do we get a CGI disaster fest when a MUTO plows through Nevada? Nope, we only get to see the aftermath. It gets to the point where you start fuming over the lack of giant monster money shots. But, I assure you, it’s well worth the wait for the climactic clash.

The slow burn by Edwards keeps the plot interesting by only giving you a taste of the action here and there. The excuse of a human story used to get to the giant monster fights is pretty average for a disaster flick. It gains our attention right away with the whole conspiracy angle, but is swapped in the second act for delivering a nuke to the creatures. Thankfully, by that point, you’re more invested in keeping an eye out for these monsters and the quick shots of carnage they unleash. The good news is that while this is your standard tropes of the epic disaster genre it doesn’t feel as lazy or forced as Roland Emmerich’s vision of making every human comic relief.

Watching this new Godzilla gave me the satisfying experience I expected along with the new vision was hoping to see. All you need to know is that Godzilla is back, he looks great and has finally gotten the movie remake he deserves. Would you believe that American audiences would be cheering for Godzilla in the theater when he unleashes a mighty roar? It’s one of my favorite moments to be in a cinema with a crowd. Edwards may not have completely started from scratch for the Godzilla franchise, but he’s done right at making a pleasing movie for fans and newcomers alike.

“Under the Skin” Review

Under the Skin is the type of film that is simple enough to describe in its story, but maddening to comprehend in how it was presented. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien living in the skin of a human body. She is not a creature that specifically has plans of world domination nor is she particularly seen as a frightened child curiously trying to understand Earth’s culture. Johansson’s character is more perplexed about her identity and examination of human beings from a silent mental analysis. She wants to learn more about the human race and how she herself can or cannot mend herself into the folds of its fabric.

The very first shot pulls back from an iris as we hear the female voice struggle to pronounce and enunciate the English language. She sounds out simple words slowly and in repetition to get it just right. After her presumable motorcycle assistant hauls a female body out of a ditch, the setting switches to a sterile, white plain where the nude figure of Johansson’s character strips down the dead woman who looks exactly as she does. Though now concealed in clothing, she knows that there will be others who may discover her secrets. Her identity as Laura must be flawless less her alien presence be discovered.

For the entire film, Laura drives around Scotland in white van talking to various men with the motorcyclist not far behind her. Some of these men are simple strangers, some of them are violent punks. One of which is a lonely man with the disfigurement of neurofibromatosis (a series of facial tumors of which the real actor is afflicted with).

What follows is a dance of temptation and examination as she lures in men to her flesh. The world literally turns into a black canvas as she strips and the men follow doing the same. The farther the men progress, the deeper they literally sink into the inky black below. It’s eerily quiet in these moments with a piercing, lone violin on the soundtrack. We see little of what actually happens to these men once they are sucked under into the dark void. All they leave behind is a floating sheet of shed male flesh that wavers and contort. The mind reels at just what is trying to be said about sexuality or the perception of sexes.

What I found most intriguing about the movie is that it’s a jigsaw puzzle that never ends. You watch it once and think you have it all pieced together for what is being said. But then you watch it a second time and notice something new in the visuals. Maybe its message is less about man’s fear of the opposite sex, but a woman’s physical repulsion to the fragility of sexual congress. Or perhaps those scenes of dark intimacy seem to suggest an indescribable separation between the two sexes. Or maybe Laura’s journey is meant to symbolize the mutating morality and mortality of humanity. Or is it really saying nothing at all?

This is the type of artistic film that is enough to drive a viewer mad. It’s a rubix cube that keeps changing colors and shifting directions where the easily frustrated will chuck it at the wall in anger. For that reason, I completely understand why many would hate such a film as it was booed at the Venice film festival. Critics were divided. Some called it laughably bad while others hailed it as one of the best films of the year. It should be clear from its inclusion on this list where I stand as I tend to favor a film that challenges its viewer with subtext. I don’t claim to get the movie because the thrill of the entire experience is trying to comprehend its meaning.

The key to this whole experience lies in Johansson’s acting. The blank look that many criticize her for plays to her advantage. Her character is one that internally struggles to comprehend the body she occupies and the environment it lives in. After a brief sexual encounter, she immediately leaps out of bed to shine the lamp on her genitals. She is both frightened and amazed at the sensation and change in her physical form. Later on, she simply stares at her naked form in a mirror, slightly moving various muscles to see how they all work. She is infatuated with the human form in a way that appears both curious and mysterious. It’s a startling vision of an outsider’s eye on the human race in how we seem and communicate with others.

The last form of Laura’s true alien form is one of creepiest sci-fi moments I can think of in the last decade. Johansson sits in a snowy forest slowly peeling back the exposed skin from her head. Ripping off the flesh exposes her true alien form that appears black. Her last moments in the film find her cold, vulnerable and in pain.

Most of the time we have aliens in movies they come down for one of two reasons: they either want to say hello (E.T., Starman) or they want us out of the picture (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). We’re never revealed Laura’s true intention for this journey in a human body. Perhaps her race is intelligent enough to not presume too much about Earth before revealing their true forms either start a dialogue or start invading. Maybe they picked up our transmissions of various alien invasion movies and decided to go ahead cautiously with exploring humanity.

This is an elusive piece of movie art I find endless infatuation for its evocative and quiet tone. The best movies in my mind are the ones that present something visually challenging and leave you questioning the picture long after the credits have rolled. If I were still in college, it’s the type of film I’d stay up until 4am arguing with my roommate over various theories until we start dissecting the picture frame-by-frame.

For that very reason, I can only recommend the movie with a disclaimer. Those who are seeking some simple entertainment of an alien discovering Earth culture will be sorely frustrated to the point that they shout “what the hell was that?”, stop the movie and forget about it. But those who want a piece of cinema art that dares you to define it will whisper “what the hell was that?”, rewind the movie and watch it endlessly. Any movie that can leave audiences that divisive and perplexed is just damn good moviemaking in my book.

“Gravity” Review

Science fiction has the power to make outer space seems like wondrous frontiers of adventure and battles. In the case of ‘Gravity’, however, we’re taken on a terror ride in Earth’s orbit that seems a little too real. It’s movies like this that make me a little less disappointed my childhood dreams of being an astronaut didn’t pan out.

The film centers on two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Their shuttle is obliterated by an orbiting debris storm that shreds anything in its path. With limited oxygen and jetpack fuel, the two must travel from space station to space station in search of a landing craft before the debris storm catches up with them. There are no extra characters or subplots as the movie is laser focused on the stunning journey back to Earth.

On one level, ‘Gravity’ sounds like a Roland Emmerich film with Murphy’s Law in full effect. Shuttles are smacked around by debris and interiors of space stations catch on fire. Surprisingly, though, there is a tremendous amount of heart in Sandra Bullock’s character as she strategically makes her journey home. She doesn’t have much to come back to which forces her to find a reason to live when the odds of survival reach critical lows.

Props needs to be given to director Alfonso Cuaron and his top-notch visual effects team that sell outer space better than any other film out there. Everything from the camera swinging around a zero-g environment to the little details of how the actors move in such a space is a real visual treat.  You never once feel like you’re just watching two actors bounce around a sound stage. The icing on the cake is the less-is-more sound editing in how all of the explosions and destruction in space is kept silent. The quiet nature of these scenes really enhances the chilling scares of the black void.

‘Gravity’ is destined to be a sci-fi classic not for its story or even characters, but the emotion and brutal atmosphere of how ruthless outer space is portrayed. Yes, it’s essentially a technological thrill ride, but it happens to be the best of its kind on all fronts. It does away with the fat that usually accompanies disaster/survival films and delivers on every nail-biter moment with genuine thrills. You don’t see too many technological marvels of cinema with such an emotional and focused core which is what makes ‘Gravity’ such an epic in my book.

“Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor” Review

While I have really dug the 50 years of Doctor Who for all its incredible stories and cheap effects, I’ve never really dug the reunion-style anniversary specials. Sure, it’s kind of cool to see multiple iterations of the iconic space-travelling Doctor in the same episode, but the stories were hardly the highlights of the series. The Three Doctors pretty much had William Hartnell wheeled out for a few lines and The Five Doctors edited in footage of Tom Baker from an unfinished episode. The plots were essentially written around the possibility of rounding up as many Doctor actors as possible. So I was a little hesitant about this 50th anniversary which brought together Matt Smith and David Tennant. However, a strong script and a great guest spot by John Hurt as the “secret doctor” manage to make this a superb special that rises above the others.

Similar to the other anniversary specials, three generations of the time-traveling Doctor are thrown together by a key event. The center of the story is a forgotten version of the Doctor (John Hurt) during the cataclysmic event known as the Time War. The war in which the Daleks and the Time Lords battle for the fate of time and space was brought to a close when the Doctor activates the Time Lock, trapping the Daleks and Time Lords forever. However, before he pushes the button, the entity of Bad Wolf (Billie Piper) opens a portal in time to witness his future incarnations if he goes through with his plan.

The old and worn Doctor happens upon both the 10th (David Tennant) and 11th (Matt Smith) versions of himself in different time periods. The 11th Doctor is trying to solve the mystery of the missing subjects of paintings in modern London while the 10th Doctor is in the 1500’s dealing with a Zygon threat. The two incidents are actually connected which brings together both of them as well as the forgotten Time War Doctor. But the solution to this Zygon threat may also hold the key for rewriting the history of the Time War.

This special manages to succeed as both a solid story and a reunion of sorts. The characters are not just trotted out for the sake of seeing them again as there is plenty going on for every character to shine. Guest star John Hurt really brings his A-game here completely inhabiting the role of grumpy, weary Doctor tired and worn from the Time War. His chemistry with the goofy David Tennant and the exuberant Matt Smith was priceless. And, thankfully, the majority of the film has them all working together to not only solve a common problem, but discover more about themselves.

There’s a brilliant moment when John Hurt asks the two Doctors if they remember how many children there were on Gallifrey before he activated the Time Lock. David Tennant remembers the exact number while Matt Smith has forgotten it over time. You really get a sense of how the characters have changed and what they think of themselves for the choices they’ve made in the past (even though we’re really only meeting one of them for the first time). It’s a solid build-up for the grand climax that not only reshapes the lore of Doctor Who, but also gives a chance for the grandest reunion of them all with all incarnations of the Doctor involved. There is even a brief glimpse of the next Doctor and a surprising cameo role by one of the notable actors of the series.

Special effects wise, this is the biggest production I’ve seen out of the series to date. Just the brief battle scenes of the Time War on Gallifrey are unbelievably epic in scale and detail. Large fleets of starships bombard the planet, troops defend the planet with laser rifles and the Daleks go down in glorious explosions.

The main villains of this special, the Zygons, were a bold choice given their strange designs. Thankfully, they come off fearsome thanks to some top-notch practical and CGI effects. All the sets from the art gallery to the historic countryside look fantastic. There are too many memorable shots to pick just one as a favorite. The opening scene where the TARDIS is airlifted to the scene, the moment when all three Doctors meet, the stand-off in an underground bunker and even the expected shot of all 12 doctors together look spectacular.

Showrunner Steven Moffat has managed to achieved what I never thought I’d see: a Doctor Who anniversary special that may be the best of the entire franchise. It continues the story of the character, rewrites the timeline, takes notable risks and is just a solidly written piece. Usually with Doctor Who, I try to look past much of its shortcomings or ironically go along with them to be entertained. Day of the Doctor is genuinely enjoyable all the way through. As a fan of the show, this is the best one could hope for from a 50th anniversary special.

“Man of Steel” Review

It’s been a long time since there has been a decent Superman movie. Superman 3 and Superman 4: The Quest for Peace were lackluster to the say least and Superman Returns was more of a love-letter than an actual remake or sequel. In the crafty hands of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel manages to be the Superman I’ve been waiting for. He doesn’t explode on to the screen with the same resonance as Batman’s reimagining, but it does lay a solid foundation for the primary-colored cape.

Told in a slightly non-linear fashion, we get to see the last son of Krypton rise to the title of Superman. The film explores how Clark Kent learns to find his place in the world and cope with his powers that become painfully overwhelming at times. In his early adult years, Clark Kent wanders the globe just trying to blend in, but always seems to end up using his powers. Eventually, he discovers the secret of his alien race via an alien vessel buried in the ice. At which point, we finally get to see the iconic suit. It took an hour, but it was well worth the build-up.

Our antagonist for the movie is Zod; not an original villain, but a strong choice that fits with the story. Having escaped the Phantom Zone for his crimes against Krypton’s council, Zod wants to turn Earth into a new Krypton with a giant gravity-smashing device. In addition, he also wants to retrieve the vital codex of his people who were actually stored within Superman’s DNA. Realizing he doesn’t need Superman alive to retrieve this information, it isn’t long before the two duke it out in a city-smashing brawl that makes Superman 2’s fight look like a minor scuffle.

This is a much different Superman than the usual movie affair. Unlike like previous incarnations which dive straight into the heroism theatrics, fun though they may be, this is man struggling to both function with and properly use his superpowers. It gives a reason for why Clark dons the cape and why he decides to lead the life we know he’ll pursue. The scene where he first learns to fly by taking massive leaps and bounds is the best moment of the film as we actually get to see Superman take shape before our eyes.

This is not a perfect movie. It has some pacing problems and the third act fight scene goes on a little too long. And the biggest concern seems to be the violence in how Superman seems to decimate Metropolis and ultimately murder his enemies. But this is actually the most unique aspect of Superman as a character. When he reaches the climax which results in him murdering his foes, he’s frustrated and angry. He realizes he has to be smart about how he uses his powers and foils the bad guys. This is a man still struggling to find his place in the world and how to be a hero. I enjoyed the development in how he still has a ways to go instead of just quickly jumping into the suit and knowing exactly what to do.

For all its questionable flaws, Man of Steel is on the same level as Batman Begins. And that movie had a few problems as well, but the sequel more than learned from those mistakes. That’s why I was so excited after seeing Man of Steel for how much potential a sequel can hold for being the best Superman movie since the original. At any rate, Superman is back and I couldn’t be happier.